Since it'd be an incredibly trite way to open this rant, I won't consult the fine works of Merriam and Webster and bore you with the definition of an encore. Like you, I already know the word's meaning. Unfortunately, I'm also aware of what encores have become.
From what I've seen, they're what an artist does at the end of a show, merited or not, when they leave the stage for a few minutes to indulge in the audience's halfhearted cheers, only to re-emerge before their fans like some sort of doting king and play the songs everyone expects them to play because those songs are their biggest hits and were curiously absent from the main set.
It's an ugly offering—one made only uglier by the fact that, if you catch a glimpse of an artist's set list during, before or after a performance, you'll see it's scripted. Regardless of how the show goes, whether it's a good performance or whether the crowd really wants to keep listening, it happens every time. The encore is literally written in ink before it happens.
I'm not sure when this became the norm, when artists simply started writing encores into their set lists. I'm more concerned with the why. And I've yet to find a satisfying answer to why these offerings have become the norm.
In theory encores shouldn't be a normal thing. They should be something doled out only once in a while as a special treat, the reward an artist offers when an audience is so moved by the performance that it demands more. And not just with a few cheers, either—it should be a reception that genuinely overwhelms the performer and makes them feel forced to return to stage, if not as a means to exit the venue with limbs intact, then as gratitude for an especially exuberant audience's exceptional response.
Instead, the encore has become a safe haven for artists to place their most crowd-pleasing songs, likely as a way of ensuring that the set ends on a high note, that everyone in the crowd leaves the venue pleased.
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Surely, the fact that the performers receive a short breather before the encore performance is a factor here. Fine. There's no arguing that an hour-long, or sometimes two-hour-long, performance is tiring. And there's no sense in denying performers a breather or two. The encore has completely replaced the intermission in this sense, which is crazy because if you're going to play music for me for two hours, I really don't mind if you need a breather halfway in to make sure that the second half isn't terrible.
But if you're going to take a break and come back for just one or two songs—and your biggest, most popular songs, no less—I'm not OK with that.
Encores just flat-out should not be expected. When they are, it takes away the excitement of seeing one and removes any sense of spontaneity. We've all been there: If you're seeing Lady Gaga live and she says goodnight and thanks the audience for coming, and then leaves the stage before playing "Bad Romance" or "Poker Face," you know exactly what's going to happen; in two minutes, she'll return and play those songs.
This happened a few weeks back at Club Dada, when buzzing electronic performer Chaz Bundick's Toro y Moi project performed to a sold-out venue. A shy performer who speaks into his microphone only as a last resort, Bundick thanked the crowd and waved goodbye an hour or so into his set and started to make his way off-stage, only to be overwhelmed by the crowd response, to be heard audibly saying "Whoa!" and to return just moments later. No doubt the crowd felt like it had a special effect on Bundick.
The song he played when he came back? It was "Blessa," easily his most popular.
Was he really going to not play that song? In what world?
Well, two worlds, far as I can tell—one in which Bundick's a huge jerk, who won't play his biggest hits, or one where he's kind of a pompous asshole, who, heading into his performance, expects the crowd to want more when he's ready to pretend that he's finished.
When you break it down like that, the performer comes out terribly either way.
I'm kind of surprised that so many of them still place themselves into these scenarios—if only begrudgingly. And, yes, that happens, too: At another performance a few weeks back—I'm blanking on which, but I want to say that it was Lou Barlow at The Loft—the performer, before leaving the stage for an encore, even joked over the P.A. system that the band was "going to go over to the side of the stage for a minute, wait for your applause, and then come right back out." Further, the act joked that they might be leaving, but that it might be in the audience's best interest to remain in their places.
A cute ploy, but what the crap? If you know you're coming back, why even bother leaving in the first place? Or, worse, pretending to do so?
Maybe I've just been hanging out with too many curmudgeonly old types of late. Maybe I've been to too many shows. Maybe I'm all showed-out at the moment after the 35 Conferette and South by Southwest. Maybe I'm just getting old.
Whatever, but I'd rather see an artist give an audience his or her all, play all the songs the crowd wants to hear and get off stage, having used the time allotted for their set to give their audience something so great that they couldn't help but be pleased. If they feel compelled to come back, then they should play their deep cuts, or maybe some specially prepared songs—kind of like Dr. Dog did so charmingly during their performance at the 35 Conferette a few weeks back, changing up the lyrics of one of their songs to make it about the audience.
As currently offered, encores are stalling moments that force crowds to stand around and wait, as if it weren't already late at night and the audiences weren't already getting antsy from standing or sitting in one place.
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There's nothing special about them. Everyone does encores. The real rock 'n' roll move would be to refuse doing one. And if you need me to define why that's a more rock 'n' roll move, well, I can't help you.
But, if you stand around like an idiot for a few minutes and scream at me, maybe I'll come back and tell you. Actually, I definitely won't.
Or will I?
See, this isn't fun at all.